The place sits on a knob of green off seminary Road in Alexandria, just far enough from the steak joints and tricked-up apartment complexes that line the exit at I-395 a mile or so away. There is a creek without water (unless it rains) curling through the grounds, a clot of fine old pre-Civil War brick buildings, and handsome oaks and mulberries. The whole effect instantly pleases - like stepping off the morning train to find your hometown hasn't changed.

But appearance can be illusory. Virginia Theological Seminary, like nearly everyone and everything else in the Protestant Episcopal Church, is feeling the blows of change these days. The changes have to do with ordaining women to the priesthood (which Episcopalians view sacramentally, extending in unbroken succession to Jesus and the 12 apostles), modernizing the Book of Common Prayer (whose archetype dates to 1549), even accepting homosexually among clergy.

If the blows aren't being felt as fiercely in this academy for future ministers as they are elsewhere in the Episcopal Church - where a schism has already broken out and a pastor has publicly take in bishop to court - they are no less debilitating. In fact, they may be more insidious for their subtlety.

Virginia Theological Seminary, or VTS as the students call it, was founded in 1823 in an Alexandria storefront as the School for Prophets. (One of its founding fathers was Francis Scott Key.) It is the second oldest, the largest, and many would say the finest Episcopal seminary in America. Nearly 20 per cent of the church's 239 living bishops are Virginia men. In a way, the school is the Harvard of seminaries in a sect that in its own way is the elite of Protestant American religions.

(Though not lily-white eite. Blacks have increasingly joined Episcopal ranks, many during the '60s when the church was being led by Bishop John Hines, a Southern liberal activist who took Episcopalians into the thick of civil rights and Vietnam protest. About 2.5 per cent of VTS's student body is black.)

In their work shirts and khakis and goose-down jacket vests, the 200-odd seminarians, who come from across the country and several foreign nations, don't especially look like candidates for holy orderes. Too, the faculty seems more ivy than heavenly. But this could just be cosmetic.

Rev. Charles P. Price's liturgics class is in session in the old library. The classroom has a faint musty smell - part godly, part oppressive - that old buildings sometimes get. Price, a doctor of theology and former university preacher at Harvard, is a demonstrative, deep-voiced, beaming fellow in a green blazer and snappy tie.

Though his lecture is learned and scholarly, he leavens it with his grin and lines like "Now here comes a Lucky Strike Extra." When his student, maybe a third of whom are women, raise their hands to speak, they call him "Charlie."

"You see, it's human nature to resist change." Price is saying, "most of all when it comes to change in one's church. Church and liturgies are supposed to be comfortable, reliable places in people's lives - not threats I always like to think of new iiturgies in terms of new shoes. Until you wear them in, they're awful."

The priest-professor wags his head "Before the ordination of the 11 Philadelphia women three years ago. I thought I knew what words like "invalid" and "irregular" and "efficacious" meant. Now I see I don't know what they mean at all and that we are not, and may never be of one mind in this church . . ."

Most of all, there was a sense of tradition. Centuries of it, the kind you could fairly lose yourself in, like a sable coat or a warm bath. It was a tradition traceable to Jamestown and the earliest colonists - though that doesn't go back for enough. No, because in a way the church of George Washington and two thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was the land's before the land was [WORD ILLEGIBLE] much but forests and hot hulking can goes with the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of strange oceans. Two Book of Common Prayer? They were reading its stately cadences in Deroged Yark 225 pears before the first musket sang at Coscord.

His name is Gary Cline and he's what is known in seminary as a "delayed vocation." At the moment he's chowing down, along with everyone else in the school and on the faculty, in the seminary's auditorium-like refectory. The place is a pleasant noon-time glatter of dishes and talk. Red coated waiters blur by on their way for seconds.

"Course you know this is an unreal world, don't you? I mean, what'd you see when you drove over here today: people trying to kill each other on the expressway. They're unhappy, they don't want to go to work, they must have fought with their wife. And then you come in here and what do you find: serenity, beauty. Christians loving one another. Maybe even apathy. Because books are what we care most about here. It's an unreal world, man. The real one's out there ."

Cline, 38, is from Martinsburg, W. Va., by way of the Carolinas. He grew up the son of a Baptist preacher, he says, with hellfire and brimstone every Wednesday night and Sunday morning. "We had revivals twice a year," he says, grinning fiercely, "with altar calls." Eventually he escaped that world, landing aftr college in Martinsburg, where he became a local wheel in the Jaycees and on the city council. His insurance job was paying good money, he had a wife he loved, three kids a house. He also had fitful nights.

"For three months I'd been waking up at 3 o'clock in the morning, unable to get back to sleep. All I could think about was this crazy notion I had a vocation. It was something I'd been fighting for three years in my head and had never really discussed with my wife. I was just too damn important to leave Martinsburg. I was getting ego-stroked from every side. Finally one night I sat bold upright in the bed and said. "Honey, I got to go to seminary.'"

He studies the small yellow shine on his plate where a grilled ham and cheese lately lay. "Which is why I'm behind women's ordination 110 per cent. Not only do I not find anything forbidding it in scripture and theology, but, you see . . . I know what happened to me when I had to come. I'm talking about a 'calling,' man, something you feel directly from the Lord. Now how you gonna be against marching orers like that, no matter what sex the person is . . . or even what sex they're sleeping with?"

Colombus, Ohio, Sept. 9, 1977: The Rev. Wayne C. Craig, Pastor of St. Paul's Episcopal Churchs asks Frankin, County Court to "prestrain" his bishop. Most Rev. John M. Krmun, from [WORD ILLEGIBLE] near his parish. The reason? Failout over women's ordination, change in the Book of Coatson Prayer, and ordination of an [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to New York.

St. Louis, Sept. 6, 1977, 1,800 "students" meet to lay plans to "sign themselves out" of the Episcopal Church and torn their new and "pure" Anglican community. (Actually, no more than 300 actually "secede.") The reason? Women's ordination, the Book of Common Prayer, ordination of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] sexuals.

Port St. Lacie, Fla., Sept. 30, 1977. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church announces to his fellow bishops that, no, be cannot in good [WORD ILLEGIBLE] support his church's ruling on women's ordination, after all. That in his group, women can no more be priests "then tey can become fathers and husbands." Maybe he should resign, offers Bishop John Allin, spiritual head of 3 million Episcopalians. He doesn't, and the bishops pass something called a "subscience clause." Some say that is just the doctrine of collegiality at work.

"We are on the edge of lawlessnes," says one bishop at Port St. Lacie

"Me? Hell. I don't care one way or the other. Do I support it? That's like asking if I'm in favor of motherhood. I don't think it has anything to do particularly with sex, if that's what you mean.But of course if you think the priesthoodis a biological issue, if you're hung up on the masculinity of Jesus and the idea of God as the Father, well . . ."

People say Paul Sorel often leaves sentences dangling at a critial intersection.Maybe that's because he's lived long enough to realize there are no final answers. Sorel is VTS's Casey Stengel in residence. He runs the seminary bookstore, which is tucked down at the bottom of campus in a madeover barracks. He once had a bookstore in Georgetown, he says, but it busted. He's been there since '51.

Sorel is back from a midday nip at a tavern in Alexandria. But don't get him wrong he doesn't do much of that anymore. "I drank all I possibly could in the first 50 years of my life and then semiretired," he says.

The grand old griper is conducting a primer on Episcopalianism and VTS just now. "This church's a curious thing. If there's one thing it stands for, it's compromise. We've got highchurch 'Catholics' who like incense and bells, and we've got low-church 'Protestants' who like the liturgy bare bones. We've got some in the middle, too. This place, which is liberal politically and theologically comes out of a low-church tradition, sort of dignified Baptist."

He is asked about the ruckus. "Like any other organization, it's the organization men, not the rank and file, who are publicly fretting. It's the generals, not the troops. Course, up there on the hil they'll probably tell you it's gloom and doom tomorrow morning."

Is it gloom and doom tomorrow morning? Sorel scoffs. "Hell, the thing's been going on for 2,000 year so I spect it'll last another 20 minutes, anyway . . .?

Dean Granville Cecil Woods says that, too, in effect. Dean Woods is the soft spoken, prematurely white-haired president of Virginia Theological. He is sitting late in the day> in his darkly gleaming office in the administration building with its stuffed chairs and oils of past Virginia bishops. He wears a collar and light gray clerical suit shooting from which are French cuffs. In an outer office is a framed but unhang photo of his school by Civil War photographer Mathew brady, taken when VTS was serving as a hospice for 1,700 federal troops. (It was also headquarters for a time for Gen. McClellan.)

"It is part of the genius of the Anglican Church," the dean begins, making points with his smooth white hands, "to be a able to tolerate large diversity. Religion presumes continuity in change. Therefore we are shocked and pained by teh controversies of recent events. But I look forward to the time when we can reconcile these differences. Even though we are presently debilitated. I can't help taking the view that it is all part of the economy of God."

It sounds like a prepared statement - except it is delivered too sadly.

Later the dean explains that women have had a place at VTS for years. Some were preparing for the deaconite as early as 1970, he says. The school went public with its stand on the ordination issue six years before it was passed in general convention in Minneapolis last year. Several weeks ago, under his sponsorship, the faculty drafted a proclamation of its support for women's ordination; it passed unanimously.

And yet, for all that slow of faculty solidarity, one detects a fundamental wearniness in this man - as if the disarray of the church outside has penetrated his walls more than he will say.

At the door he says "I cannot ever remember a time when I was personality opposed to a woman having a full role in the church. But I never thought it would come to pass in my lifetime. I have searched scripture and my own heart, and I can see nothing to bar it." And then, more softly, "It must be a terrible thing to have people telling you your orders are in question . . ."

Soundings from the students reveal same disarray, too. Enough clam up when they hear a reporter is around. So-and-so will talk, someone says: he doesn't. Someone also sits in the pale shadows of a student lounge and says "I know this isn't the party line, but I have trouble accepting women in authority in the church. Some of them. I supsect, are here for political reasons." he asks not to be named.

The women are more open. Maybe it's because they have less to lose. Anne Amy, a married senior applying for a position in her home diocese of Washington (which has been a leader of the fight for women's rights and black rights in the church for years), says: "I guess I'm tired of having to justify my vocation as a woman, then as a priest. Not because of me, Anne Amy, but because of my sex.It gets a little wearisome - you know?"

Florence Canfield, another married senior, says: "I mean, when people won't come to the alter to receive communion just because you're a woman . . ." She pauses, then adds: "The night orindation passed at the general convention. I got a call. I remember walking outside and saying to myself, 'Now it begins.'"

Still others have found ways to channel their frustration. pat Thomas is a "middler" (second year) at VTS. After Bishop Allin's bombshell announcement that he couldn't support women's ordination. Thomas and a fellow student fired off a mailgram of protest calling for his resignation there were 19 signers from the seminary.

Georgia Shoberg was ordained last year. She came backto VTS to serve as assistant chaplain. She's from Michigan, where she was the first woman in the history of her diocese to enter the seminary. She doesn't see herself as a pioneer, more "a kind of model for the wholeness of Christ's ministry. Here at seminary we're pretty much accepted as persons first, women second. Oh, thre are dissenters in every class, but we don't go around drawing up lists."

Two days Inter, in Rev. Henry Rightor's pastoral care class, a curious thing happens. Rightor, 68, a one-time lawyer from Arkansas in a camel sport coat and argyle socks, has brought in a black lieutenant from the Washington police department to address his students on community relations. The women's issue doesn't come up explicitly - but race does. After a comment by a while student (smoking a pipe), a black student named Alfredo, sitting beneath a plque memoralizing John Henry Ducachet Wingfield, class of 1856, raises his hand and with what looks like a fine, controlled rage says:

"Sometimes the whiteness of this church sickens me. They play white man's music. They put this piece of white bread in my hand. Hey, man that doesn't speak to me. I mean, if it was a brown water I would say, okay, right on. But I'm tired thinking Jesus has to be a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed honky. Who says so? Why can't Jesus be a cool black dude . . . or even a cool black woman? There are too may WASPS in this room!"

Later, back at his comfortable (Waspish) house, which adjoins campus. Rightor, who is in his last year on the faculty and instantly likable, slaphis thigh and nearly cackles. "You see, I had to bring in a police officer from the District to precipitate the dissention in this place, bring it out in the open. Don't you see what that kid was getting at? This is the church of the elite, man. There's no place here for singles, or divorceds, or women, when you get down to it. The same tiny percentage that sets the norms at General Motors and The Washington Post sets them in the Episcopal Church I love these controversies we're having."

But what will happen to the parish priest, say, in Iowa, who has given a lifetime of service to his church? Does he face disillusionment?

The old priest considers his answer. Then, "I guess it depends on whether he has an open or closed mind. But I know this: God is ultimately in control of his church. If you have faith you don't question that."

Evening service, Seminarians and their families drift toward a floodlit building whose main window, trimmed in soft yellow, depicts the apostles: over the window there is this. GO YE INTO ALL THE WORLD AND PREACH THE GOSPEL.

Inside Rev. Jim Ross, bearded, deepvoiced, stands above the congregation Charlie Price is to one side, looking in his dark gown like an Oxford don; he holds a hymnal.

Ross's text is on Jesus encountering lepers on the way to Jerusalem. While candles flicker against the walls and windows andg reat dark wood of the place Ross talks of "turning points." They are always there in our lives, he says, not always of the same order or geometry, but discernible just the same. We mustn't overlook them.

Afterward the congregation rises to sing that "God Himself is with us . . . Soul in silence fear him," and the women sing loudest of all.